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Lionel Shriver has already established herself as a novelist with a strong interest in the psychology of dysfunctional families and difficult characters, most notably with her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, the story of a mother reflecting on the life of her son whose hatefulness finally leads him to performing a mass school killing. In Big Brother, Shriver takes another social issue, obesity. Pandora is in her early forties, and she has married Fletcher, a divorced man with two teenage children. They have a peaceful and successful suburban life in Iowa. She used to run her own catering company, but now she is heading a much more profitable business, which sells hand-made talking dolls based on real people. This luxury item is bringing in lots of money, which is a good thing, because Fletcher, who creates his own furniture, sells hardly anything. So because of her financial power, she has the upper hand in their marriage. Yet the two of them get on well, supporting each other and mostly enjoying each other's company. There is some slight tension in the family due to Fletcher's obsessive enthusiasm for fitness and healthy food. He goes on long bike rides and will not eat any dairy-based products, which keeps him trim and strong, but exasperates the rest of the family.
These slight strains are made much worse when Pandora's older brother Edison comes for an extended visit. Edison is a jazz pianist who lives in New York City; he left home when he was 17 for the city, and he had been good looking and rebellious. Unfortunately, life has not been kind to Edison. His jazz career has not gone well, and he is now homeless. Although Fletcher and Edison do not get on well, Pandora wants to help her brother, so she buys him a flight to Iowa and meets him at the airport. She is shocked when she sees Edison, because he has changed dramatically. At normal weight the last time she saw him a few years ago, he has now become extremely obese.
Although musically talented, Edison is not an easy person to be around. He drones on about music when no one else is interested. He shows little interest in other people's lives. Now he eats huge amounts of food, and empties the fridge on a regular basis. He also insists on making huge meals for the family, which Fletcher refuses to even sample. Pandora finds herself torn between her brother and her husband, and as the stay goes on, Fletcher's patience decreases to the extent that he is ready to give her an ultimatum. She has to choose between these two men; she can either choose to help her brother end his overeating or she can keep her marriage.
So this is a novel that portrays Edison's problem with weight as a bad way of dealing with his problems. Although she brings in plenty of information about how difficult it is for overweight people to get their weight back down, she does not show Edison as a victim or as someone with an eating addiction. Ultimately it would take both determination and a great deal of support from others to get back to a healthy weight, and there are so many emotions wrapped in the process that it would be virtually impossible to succeed.
Shriver fills out the story with a rather tiresome story about the past that Pandora and Edison share as children of a father who was one of the main characters in a long running TV sitcom, and she shows their unhappy past. We also get lots of details about Fletcher's teenage children, and Pandora's business. All of this makes the novel more three dimensional, although it is largely dispensable, because the central issue of obesity dominates the language and the story. The question hanging over the whole novel is whether it is possible to really help someone who is committed to eating themselves to death. Ultimately, the novel is bleak in its outlook.
While the novel has won praise from many critics, it has made enemies of some who were former fans of Shriver's work. Many readers take the book to be judgmental about obese people and furthermore, they react badly to a literary device Shriver uses, reminiscent of Ian McEwan's Atonement. As a meditation on our responsibility to help others, and on obesity, it is a provocative work, and there are points when it feels like Shriver is setting out ideas that are controversial just for the sake of it. It isn't surprising that some readers feel manipulated, although it is a strategy that has worked well for Jodi Picoult.
So it is especially interesting to learn that this novel has a strong autobiographical element. Shriver herself had an elder brother who was morbidly obese, who died of related causes. An article in the UK Observer also reveals that Shriver herself is like Fletcher, with a rigorous health regime including biking, running and other exercises. So the novel contains many issues that she personally has encountered. Knowing this may alter readers' experience of the work. There is no denying it is a book that attempts to understand weight issues in ways that avoid many of the usual clichés, and despite its pessimism, it stands out for tackling difficult problems.
The performance of the unabridged audiobook by Alice Rosengard is fine, making Pandora a sympathetic and thoughtful character.
© 2013 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York